I recently read an article from The Atlantic entitled “The Best Skin-Care Trick: Be Rich.” In it, the author describes a game she likes to play “in Manhattan’s ritzy neighborhoods” called “Famous or just rich.” The premise of the game is this: Those who are “just rich” are able to trick your brain into thinking, if for only a moment, that they might be famous. They accomplish this via their glassy, poreless, silky skin—an attribute that elevates them above normalcy, into some glowy, godlike status.
She also addresses the skin-care routines of Victoria’s Secret models, who have dermatologists specifically appointed to oversee their face flesh. I imagine the models get their faces punctured, microneedled, acid peeled, plumped, light treated, until they are bleeding and bruised and mended, until the topmost layers are sloughed off to reveal the baby pink, fresh layers beneath. These procedures cost hundreds and often upwards of thousands of dollars.
When the models are interviewed for magazines about their skin routines they cite eating lettuce, drinking lemon water, and washing their faces every night as the secret to healthy, glowing skin. And therein lies the farce—that a simple attention to one’s basic bodily needs will result in glistening skin, that caring for oneself on a base level produces unearthly beauty, that skin care is a kind of ethics.
This semester I had disposable income and with it I bought a 7-percent glycolic acid toning solution from The Ordinary. It costs $16 on Amazon, $6 on The Ordinary’s site. Every day after I wash my face with Cerave I wipe it down with the acid. You can feel it on the skin. It doesn’t sting, only gives you the idea that it might. The chemicals burn off the topmost layer of my face, which I must admit is a satisfying feeling, if a bit grotesque. I then apply a thick moisturizer, which leaves my skin tacky and glistening for the rest of the evening. The moisturizer is $20 for a small tube. There’s something luxurious, self-indulgent about the process. One might call it self care.
After the dopamine hit that I got from buying only two slightly novel skin-care products, I began to obsess over finding new ways to alter my skin. I now know how to concoct a five-step routine for morning and night, what active ingredients are in each product. I know the difference between a formulation and a one note product. I know that you can’t apply hyaluronic acid if the air in your apartment is too dry. The only thing that has prevented me from filling my bathroom counter with glass bottles full of different types of elixirs and serums is the cost. I could probably afford it. But it feels like a waste. I am still more invested in buying other things like clothes (the way I project my image to others) and house plants (the way I project my image for myself).
When I first came to Wesleyan I was struck by how beautiful many of the students were. It was not just that people were pretty, they looked like they took care of themselves. The first thing that I fixated on was the clothes, the way people seemed to know how to dress and have a cohesive sense of style. How I couldn’t seem to do the same. Now I fixate on the skin. So many people have that smooth, poreless skin. So many people look like they know what 7-percent glycolic acid toner is. Not that everyone at Wesleyan drops cash on microneedling. Some people just have nice skin. The problem is that I respect them for it. I respect the effort and, if I am honest, the cash that goes into the construction of an image.
When I first had enough money to spend on myself, I started spending it on clothing, on skin care, on reproducing the cultivated images of the people around me, or the image I would like to project of myself. And I find it satisfying, how I can alter my looks with only a little bit of money, a little bit of effort. I have complained to others about feeling the compulsion to do these things, to buy more than I need. I’m often met with the excuse, “It’s self care. You deserve it.” Several of the skin care YouTubers I watch, who drop hundreds on a single haul video, describe their routine as a self-care ritual. Similar attitudes to clothing are not uncommon. Had a bad day? Treat yourself. You deserve it. It’s for your mental health.
This constructs a climate in which dropping money on skin care, nice clothing, or any other number of things, is an ethical obligation to yourself. The idea is that indulgence means loving yourself, having nice things, and looking pretty a boon to your mental health. If we are to believe the Victoria Secret models, all it takes is a little bit lemon water and lettuce to be a good person with good skin. But the reality is that it takes capital to indulge in these things, to “take care of yourself.” As a result, skin care, or rather the process of buying skin care, or rather self care, or rather indulgence in capitalistic pursuit of buying objects to construct a self, makes you a more ethical, better person.
Katie Livingston is a member of the Class of 2021. Katie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.